The United States had over 15.6 million cosmetic surgical procedures in 2020. While this number is staggering, it only represents a small portion of the procedures that are performed annually. Surgeons and other healthcare professionals rightly receive a lot of credit for these procedures, but their job would not be as easy or successful without the help of sterile processing technicians.
Sterile Processing is the process of cleaning, inspecting, disinfection and sterilization of medical devices used during a surgical procedure. Sterile processing technicians typically work across most healthcare institutions to oversee this process.
Here are five things you should know about sterile processing and sterile processing technicians.
1. It is an in-demand career
Given the sheer amount of procedures conducted every year, it is no surprise that sterile processing technicians are in-demand! According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there is a predicted 5% growth for medical equipment preparers between 2022-2032.
A large segment of the population is now made up of seniors who often rely on surgical procedures to maintain a comfortable, healthy lifestyle. So, long as there is a need for surgeries, there will be a need for professionals to aid in the sterile processing of equipment.
2. Caution is key!
Surgeons aren’t the only healthcare professionals that handle medical equipment. Technicians must always follow specific instructions to ensure that each surgical and ancillary instrument is cleaned, sanitized and carefully reassembled. Equally important is the disassembly of equipment. Many sterile processing technicians wear gowns, masks and/or face shields, and gloves to protect themselves from contamination. They could be exposed to contamination through blood and other bodily fluids and or by harsh cleansing agents.
The whole process needs to be completed efficiently and effectively. Although sterile processing technicians don’t work directly with patients, their role in patient care is vital.
3. Decontamination is a multistep process
Decontamination is either a physical or chemical process that ‘cleans’ instruments that may be contaminated safe for further handling. As you might expect, this decontamination is not a simple process that has a one-size-fits-all approach. It isn’t like washing dishes or doing laundry! Although the process can vary, the general decontamination process includes:
- Transport: All contaminated items are collected and taken to a secure area that avoids contamination. Equipment is usually covered and transported via cart, closed tote or closed bags.
- Attire: As mentioned, personnel working with these materials must make sure that they stay safe as well by wearing protective gear. Additionally, if they are at risk of splashing, sterile processing technicians will wear safety goggles, face masks or face shield to protect themselves.
- Sorting: Not everything can be cleaned in the same way. Single-use items are thrown away and sharp items are also set aside if they do not have disposable parts. This is a very precise system.
- Soaking: Just like in the sorting process, not everything will be soaked. This is a necessary step if you have lumens or other materials that are filled with debris or are bloody and need extra attention.
- Washing: This is the crux of the decontamination process. Items that have already been sorted and/or soaked are then put through a specific cleaning process which includes a specific type of detergent and equipment.
- Inspection: Just like you must check dishes coming out of the dishwasher, you MUST check all materials that have been washed. Just because it has been cleaned does not mean that it is completely sanitized. If any problem is noticed, the item will either must be washed again, or the item will have to be repaired or replaced depending on what issue is observed.
4. There are many types of washing equipment
If you thought there was only one way to clean medical equipment, think again! Sterile processing technicians work with many types of equipment to ensure that all medical equipment is cleaned and sanitized. While the exact cleaning process depends on the device manufacturer and what materials are used, some possible equipment could include:
- Washer/decontaminator: This piece of equipment operates similarly to a washing machine. The cycle comprises multiple washes and rinses with very warm water and detergent. This is used to clean heat-tolerant items. Some items that are put through the washer/decontaminator may also undergo other sterilization steps to ensure that all items are sanitized.
- Ultrasonic: This equipment works by converting high-frequency sound waves to mechanical vibrations to remove debris from the surface of the instruments. This process is called cavitation and is often done after manual cleaning but before sterilization.
- Tunnel washers: Try to imagine a mini-car wash. Items in trays are sent through the tunnel washer directly from an operating room. While going through the tunnel washer, the instruments go through cycles of rinsing, washing, ultrasonic, additional rinsing and drying.
5. Sterile Processing is a great way to get your foot in the door!
A career as a sterile processing technician is a great way to begin a career in healthcare. The sterile processing diploma program allows you to quickly begin practicing as a sterile processing technician and build a strong foundation to continue pursuing your educational pathway and expand your area of expertise.
At Herzing University, you can complete your diploma in sterile processing in as little as 8 months (32 weeks). The best part is you don’t have to have previous healthcare experience to get started, just the motivation to be part of the patient care process!